Chapter 1 After some time as king, Arthur asks Merlin for counsel, since his barons are harassing him to choose a wife. Merlin asks if there is any woman he loves, and Arthur responds with Guenever. Merlin warns Arthur that she and Launcelot will fall in love, but he also understands that when a man’s heart is set there is little to be done.
Choosing a wife and establishing a lineage is, as we’ve seen, highly important for a king. Here Merlin’s ambivalent powers become evident again, as he can give counsel but seems unable to change some things, including love. It’s also telling that Arthur is warned even now about Guenever’s future affair, but he seems to entirely forget or disregard this prophecy.
Merlin goes to King Leodegrance to tell him of Arthur’s love for the king’s daughter. Leodegrance is pleased and sends his daughter with Merlin.
Merlin gains another role, here, as mediator for important royal decisions, like a political marriage.
Chapter 2 Arthur is overjoyed to hear that Guenever is on her way. He asks Merlin to collect 50 of the most skilled knights in the land, but Merlin can find only 28. The Archbishop blesses the men, and Merlin tells them to pay homage to Arthur.
A royal marriage is shown to be both significant and closely tied to the knights of the land, whose prowess in battle is another aspect of a king’s and his kingdom’s identity.
Chapter 3 A poor man comes into court riding next to a young man of 18 years and asks for King Arthur. The poor man says he has heard that Arthur has sworn to give any man the gift he asks, as long as it is reasonable. He asks that Arthur make his son a knight. Arthur says that this is a great thing to ask. The young man says his name is Tor. He is one of thirteen sons, and Arthur has them all brought to him. They are all alike to each other, but Tor looks different and superior to them all. Arthur asks Tor to pull out his sword, and Tor kneels, as Arthur lays the sword over Tor’s neck, proclaiming him a knight.
In a society where hierarchies are incredibly important, it is shocking and even perhaps insolent to demand such a thing of a king. However, Arthur has been schooled by Merlin to know—and, of course, he knows from his own case—that someone’s initial appearance does not necessary define his identity. Still, Arthur relies mainly on physical markers of strength and might in deciding whether or not to knight Tor.
Merlin says that Tor will be a great knight, since he is of kings’ blood: Aries is not his real father—it’s actually King Pellinore. Merlin has Tors’s fetched, who tells Merlin and Arthur that when she was a maid, a knight had slept with her by force, and she had conceived Tor. Tor asks Merlin not to dishonor his mother, and Merlin says that there is nothing to be ashamed of, since his father is a king.
Usually, rape is an occasion for social shame and dishonor: here it becomes justifiable because of Tors’s true identity—a judgment that we may find abhorrent today, but which would have seemed justifiable and even merciful at the time.
Chapter 4 The next day Pellinore comes to Arthur’s court and is pleased to meet his son. There are two empty places among the knights’ seats at the table, and when Arthur asks why, Merlin says that only the most worthy men shall sit there. He takes Pellinore by the hand and gives him one seat. Sir Gawaine (who has just been knighted alongside Tor) is furious at this, since Pellinore killed his and his brother Gaheris’s father King Lot. Gawaine prepares to kill Pellinore and avenge the death, but Gaheris, a squire, says to wait until he is knighted to make revenge.
There is no sense that Pellinore should feel guilty for having raped Tors’s mother, who recedes into the background as more “important” questions of identity and legitimacy come to the fore. While revenge is a notable part of court life, it also tends to be seen as more justifiable as a long-term commitment rather than a sudden act of rage. The problem is this leads to a very tangled web of personal vendettas.
Chapter 5 Arthur and Guenever’s wedding takes place and a high feast is prepared. As all are seated, a white hart (stag) runs into the hall, along with a white brachet (female deer) and 30 black hounds behind them. The brachet bites the hart on the buttock and rips off flesh, and the hart leaps up over a knight, who grabs the brachet and runs away with it. Then a lady on a white horse cries to Arthur that the brachet was hers. An armed knight rides in and steals away the lady, crying. When she is gone, Merlin advises Arthur to call Gawaine to bring back the white hart, and call Tor to bring back the brachet and knight or else slay the knight. Pellinore must also bring the lady and her knight or else slay him as well.
In the middle of what should be a calm celebratory feast, a number of events take place to disrupt the status quo. The main result of these events is to assign a quest to knights, here Pellinore, Tor, and Gawaine. They will now have to follow their assignment until either they achieve it or are killed. Here it’s more clear than at other times why exactly the quests are assigned, since a lady in distress is involved, as well as a need to avenge an important interrupted royal feast. The pursuit of some kind of special deer is another trope common to many of these tales.
Chapter 6 Sir Gawaine rides out with his brother Gaheris and they come across two brothers fighting. The elder says that a white hart, many hounds, and a white brachet had run by them: since they knew this was an adventure made for Arthur’s high feast, the elder wanted to chase them to win glory, but the younger claimed he was a better knight, so they fell to fighting. Gawaine admonishes them for fighting so, and tells them to go to Arthur’s court themselves.
While Gaheris is not yet a full knight, as a squire he is able to assist in knightly quests, serving as a kind of apprentice. Here we also learn that the “adventure” was not an accident but was somehow created by or for Arthur, most likely in order that knights might show their prowess and win glory for Arthur.
Gawaine follows the cry of the hounds to a river, which the hart swims across. On the other side is a knight who tells Gawaine not to cross or else they’ll have to joust. Gawaine says he must follow his quest, so he crosses the river and they clash with spears. Gawaine strikes the knight off his horse and kills him.
Gawaine knows that part of what a quest means is that he must accept any challenge that confronts him, mowing down any obstacle in his path that might prevent him from reaching his goal. As is often the case, many smaller “adventures” come up in the course of one larger quest.
Chapter 7 Gawaine and Gaheris continue chasing the hart and send three greyhounds after it into a castle, where the dogs kill the hart. A knight emerges from one chamber and kills two of the greyhounds. He mourns over the white hart, which his lover had given him. The knight meets Sir Gawaine, who asks why he’s killed the hounds. The knight says he’s avenged the hart’s death on the hounds, and will do the same for Sir Gawaine. They fight, and finally the knight surrenders and asks for mercy, but Gawaine is angry for the killing of his hounds and refuses. As Gawaine is about to cut off the knight’s head, the man’s lover emerges and throws herself on him, so Gawaine cuts off her head by mistake. Gaheris says that Gawaine will never outlive this shame. Gawaine tells the knight to arise, for now he’ll have mercy, and Gawaine tells him to go to Arthur and tell him what happened.
Greyhounds are common hunting animals in the book, assisting the knights in their quests and, as is still the case today, serving as friendly companions. Gawaine thus grows angry at his hounds’ death just as the knight is furious at Gawaine’s killing of the hart, since both are meaningful animals to them. It is telling that Gawaine’s anger is such that he refuses to give mercy to the knight. Mercy is an essential part of the knight’s code of chivalry and honor, and Gawaine’s inability to grant it becomes even more shocking once it results in the tragic accident of the lady’s death, an even greater dishonor.
Chapter 8 That night, four armed knights besiege Gawaine in the castle, saying that he’s shamed his knighthood for not showing mercy and for slaying a lady. Gawaine and Gaheris fight against the two, becoming seriously wounded. But then four ladies come and at their request the men are granted mercy.
The armed knights would seem to be in the right here, given that they are avenging the dishonorable actions of Gawaine, but the stories often seem to be biased in favor of Arthur’s knights.
One lady comes to Sir Gawaine the next morning and asks for his name. She cries that he must be Arthur’s nephew, and she tells the four knights, who give him the white hart’s head as part of his quest. Gawaine rides back to Camelot with the dead lady’s head hung around his neck, and tells Arthur and Guenever the story, upsetting them deeply. Guenever decrees that Gawaine’s eternal quest shall be to protect all ladies.
Ultimately Gawaine does succeed in bringing back the hart, but it’s at a great cost. It is generally considered necessary to share all details of a quest with the king and queen, who, although they are upset with Gawaine, are able to grant him the mercy that he refused another.
Chapter 9 Meanwhile, Sir Tor rides after the knight with the brachet. He meets a dwarf, who strikes Tor’s horse, saying that Tor cannot pass this way without jousting against the knights at a nearby pavilion. Tor says he must follow his quest. The dwarf blows his horn, and a knight rides out to fight Tor. Eventually Tor conquers and the knight begs for mercy, which Tor grants him—with the condition that he go as prisoner to King Arthur. Then the dwarf asks Tor if he might do him service, since he no longer has a master. Tor gives the dwarf a horse to ride with him.
Another dwarf serves as a kind of messenger or mediator between different groups of knights, here attempting to interrupt Tor in his quest against the knight with the brachet. A general result of battles between knights is that the one who loses must offer himself as prisoner to the other knight’s king and queen: the code of honor is so crucial that it is assumed that the defeated knight will go freely.
Chapter 10 Tor rides with the dwarf to a pavilion where he sees a lady lying asleep next to the white brachet. Tor seizes the brachet and the woman wakes up, saying that Tor won’t make it far with the brachet without some mishap. Tor and the dwarf stay at a hermitage that night, and the next day continue toward Camelot. Then a knight calls out that Tor has stolen his lady’s brachet. They fight and wound each other: finally Tor has the man, Abelleus, beneath him, but Abelleus won’t ask for mercy.
It initially appears that Tor has easily won his adventure, seizing the brachet without much trouble. But when women are involved in this story, trouble tends not to be far off. Indeed, soon enough Tor has to defend his newly gotten prize from a man attempting to defend his lady’s honor (another knightly virtue).
Chapter 11 A damsel comes riding towards the men and asks for a gift from Tor: the head of the “false knight” Abelleus, who has killed the lady’s brother. She requires this gift or else she will shame Tor in front of the entire court. Abelleus now asks for mercy, but Tor refuses, and strikes off his head.
Tor is now strung between two competing knightly virtues: either he grants Abelleus’s call for mercy, but in doing so fails to defend a lady, or he chooses the lady’s honor over the requirement for mercy. This kind of dilemma is a common one in the book.
The damsel invites Tor to lodge at her house that evening. The next day he leaves and arrives at Camelot a day after, where he is greeted with joy and shares his adventures with the court. Following Merlin’s counsel, Arthur gives Tor an earldom.
In choosing the lady, Tor reveals that he knows how to successfully navigate among the complicated, often competing commitments of a knight on a quest.
Chapter 12 Pellinore, meanwhile, rides after the lady stolen by the knight at Arthur’s feast. He comes across a lady sitting by a well in the forest, who asks for help, but Pellinore is so eager in his quest that he pays her no attention. The lady then prays to God that Pellinore might one day need as much help as she, as she is currently trying to tend to a wounded knight, who would later die. But Pellinore continues and asks if a poor laborer on the way has seen the knight and damsel. The man points him to a pavilion where two knights are fighting over the damsel.
We now move to the third knight who began a quest as a result of Arthur’s ceremonial feast. Pellinore, like Gawaine, finds it difficult to weigh the claims of this quest with other claims on him that have to do with his order of chivalry as a knight. That he refuses to help a lady in need is meant to be seen as a shocking failure of knightly virtue, which Pellinore will probably have to pay for.
Pellinore rides to the pavilion and cries out to the lady to accompany him back to Arthur’s court. He asks why the knights are fighting: one says she is his cousin, so he’s fighting for her honor, and the other, says he gained the right to her through his jousting prowess at Arthur’s court. Pellinore knows this isn’t true, and he tells them to stop fighting or he’ll defend her himself. The false knight kills Pellinore’s horse, and Pellinore strikes him dead in revenge.
Having come from Arthur’s court himself, Pellinore knows that one of the knights cannot be telling the truth, but he’s not quite on the side of the cousin either, wanting to gain the damsel for himself. He is also vulnerable to temper, and we see again how ubiquitous death is in this world of constant competition and revenge.
Chapter 13 The cousin turns to Pellinore and tells him to take the lady to court, but that Pellinore should lodge with him that night. He asks Pellinore’s name, and is glad that his cousin will be in the care of such a noble man. His name is Sir Meliot and his cousin is Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. The next day they ride through a valley full of stones, and the lady’s horse stumbles and she falls, hurting herself. They stop to rest, and stay there that night.
It is unclear whether this Lady of the Lake is the same as the prior one—the stories may be out of chronological order (since Balin had presumably cut off the Lady’s head in an earlier Book) or there may be multiple characters by this name. In any case, Pellinore now shows himself to be more chivalrous with this lady.
Chapter 14 In the darkness Pellinore hears two knights meet nearby, one from Camelot and one from the north. The one from Camelot is traveling north to tell chieftains there about the fellowship of the Round Table. The other is bringing a poison that a so-called friend of Arthur’s will feed to him. The Camelot knight warns him of Merlin’s all-knowing powers. The two knights depart, and Pellinore continues on. He comes across the lady he had ignored earlier, who has been eaten by lions and beasts, and he regrets having continued on without helping her. Pellinore takes her lover’s body to a hermitage to be buried.
By a lucky chance, Pellinore happens to hear about a potential treason against Arthur—always a possibility in this kingdom, even now that Arthur seems to have secured a more stable hold over his realm. In this scene, Pellinore also sees the direct result of his defiance of chivalry in refusing to help the lady, who is now dead along with her lover—by burying him Pellinore attempts to make up for the wrong he committed. It seems unlikely now, but lions did once inhabit Europe and even the isles of the UK.
Chapter 15 Pellinore and the lady arrive at Camelot the next day and he tells his adventures. Guenever laments that Pellinore didn’t save the other lady’s life. Merlin says the lady was Pellinore’s own daughter, Elaine. Since Pellinore would not help him, his own best friend will fail him in his time of greatest need.
Again, Pellinore is bound by honor to tell exactly what happened. In this case, Merlin is again able to predict the future, in an oracle that suggests Pellinore will indeed have to pay for his crime.
The quest of the white hart, brachet, and lady are now finished. Arthur grants various lands to the knights and tells them never to murder or betray their realm; to give mercy rather than cruelty to whomever asks it; to always protect ladies; and to only battle for righteous causes. The knights of the Round Table swear on this code, renewing it each year at Pentecost.
Though we’ve heard much about the fellowship of the Round Table, only in this scene does Arthur explicitly detail what should be involved in any knight that pledges himself to this code of honor and chivalry. The code (again associated with a Christian feast day) is one that will come to define Arthur’s knights.